Strong, Brave, Courageous

It’s fairly common for parents whose child has died to have someone tell them how strong they are. I think that perception comes from the fact that we are able to bury our children and still function. People see us greeting memorial or funeral attendees and wonder how we can stand up there and actually do that. They think we must be so strong. Initially, I think our instinct to behave as we have in the past takes over. We are numb, and so we instinctually try to act or react, at least for a little while, as we would have before our child died. It’s sort of like muscle memory.

Muscle memory is a term that means our muscles “remember” how to do something. It’s procedural memory, meaning we have repeated a procedure until our muscles automatically complete the task. For example, last May we went on vacation to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. One of the best ways to get around the island is by bicycle. Although we used to ride bikes a lot when I was a kid, I hadn’t been on a bicycle in nearly 40 years. I was nervous about riding a bike again after all those years, but I got on and rode as if I had never missed riding all those years. My body – my muscles – remembered how to ride a bike.

Muscle memory applies to a lot of activities we do – typing, skiing, writing, playing video games, playing an instrument, even walking. We don’t necessarily have to think about these activities, we just do them. I think it’s very interesting that Alzheimer’s patients may not even remember that they were musicians, but can sit down and play the piano or some other instrument.

At first, that’s what bereaved parents do. We try to act according to our previous patterns. We can’t keep doing that, because nothing is the same, but I think that’s how we start out.

I tend to organize and plan things. I’m not as organized as some people, but I spent years organizing homeschool field trips, classes, school schedules, etc. So, when Jason died, my instinct was to take the steps necessary to do what needed to be done. Honestly, I don’t know how I did it.

I went home and started calling people. Who else was going to call them? I had called Eric from the accident site, making sure he had someone else who drive him to our house. I called my sister. I called my mom. I called some of Jason’s friends. I called church people I thought of as extended family. I answered the phone when one of Jason’s tutoring students called and had to tell him Jason had died. I hugged and comforted people who came by the house. I ran to tightly hug Joe or Jenna when they collapsed and sobbed uncontrollably. They did the same for me. The rest of that day was mostly a blur. I was a mess. I had such horrible headache from crying. The next day, though, there were things we needed to do.

It’s strange. Think about planning an event – a party or wedding – and how much time and effort goes into such an event. Weeks, months of planning. Bereaved parents have only a few days to plan their child’s funeral or memorial service.

There is so much to do and so many decisions to make after a child dies. Choosing a place to bury your child. Choosing a casket. Choosing a headstone and what to put on it. Flowers. Visitation or no visititation. Open or closed casket. Funeral or memorial service. Private family graveside service, or open attendance memorial or funeral. Location, date, time of service. Officiant. Music to be played before and during the service. Asking people to participate in speaking or playing an instrument or singing. Choosing photographs for the video montage and music to accompany it. Picking out photographs or memorabilia to display at the service. Picking out what your child should wear. Picking out what you will wear. Trying to figure out where out of town guests would stay and who would get them from the airport. Talking to the officiant to plan the order of service. Deciding which newspapers to put notices in and what to say in the notices. On and on it goes. It’s overwhelming. We had a private graveside service and a open attendance memorial, so we had to plan two events. We made all of these decisions in a matter of a day or two. We had help with some things, but most of the plans and decisions were only ours to make. It’s just crazy for me to think about, even now.

While we were doing all of this, Alina’s parents were doing the same thing. After we made all of our plans, we found out (without any prior knowledge for any of us) that we had chosen the exact same casket as Alina’s family and a burial plot one space away from where Alina would be buried. The odd thing to me – and it has always seemed so odd – is that a person named Henderson is buried between them, and Jesse Henderson (don’t know if any relation) is the person who killed Jason and Alina.

Were we strong or were we just acting on instinct? Perhaps some of each.

I recently read a post on Mother’s Day that talked about how brave mothers are who have lost a child. I’ve never thought of myself as strong or brave. I see myself as broken. I shattered when Jason died, and I feel like I still have so many pieces missing. I’m still such a mess sometimes. I struggle and have lots of scars from Jason’s death and all that happened afterward.  But that post started me thinking of the paths bereaved parents journey after their child dies and some of the situations we encounter that are unique to our journey, and I just have to say that I have changed my mind. Bereaved parents: We ARE brave. We ARE strong. We ARE courageous.

We bury our children and keep on going. We try to find a reason to keep on living. We go back to school. We go back to work. We have to learn how to help others deal with our loss when we don’t even know how to help ourselves. We comfort others when we are are the ones in desperate need of comfort and understanding. We educate ourselves on the process of grieving. At times, we have to put on a mask to hide our grief or find ways to make our grief palatable to those around us. We deal with friends who disappear, either initially or after a while when we don’t “recover” quickly enough for their comfort. We endure people telling us what to do and how we should grieve when they have no idea what they’re talking about. We deal with the hurt when people pretend they don’t see us and choose a getaway down another grocery aisle. We forgive those who hurt us even when no one has asked forgiveness. We have to figure out how to find a new normal. We keep working on rebuilding our lives. We take care of our remaining families.

We deal with people judging us for how we grieve. We deal with people telling us we should “move on” or giving us a time limit of when “we should be over it.” We make allowances for inconsiderate people who don’t understand what it’s like to lose a child. We rejoice at the weddings or graduations of others, knowing our children will never have the same opportunities. We find ways to honor the memory of our children. We make new traditions for holidays while embracing memories of ones gone by. We write and speak and try to educate people on how to help others whose children have died. We live our lives, day in and day out, with broken hearts and a burden of grief we hope no one else will ever have to carry. We cry until we can’t cry any more, and then dry our tears to start a new day. We have walked such difficult paths when it seems others have walked easier ones. We may not do it perfectly, but we keep on going. We deal with so many hard things, but keep on trying. We get knocked down and get back up. We live. We love.

I would just like to say bravo to all of you bereaved parents out there. Most people don’t have to do what we have had to do. Keep trying. Keep walking. Keep writing. Keep speaking about your children and your love for them.

Hugs to each of you,

Becky

© 2016 Rebecca R. Carney

Mother’s Day

This is a really good article about Mother’s Day following the death of a child. It addresses ways for parents whose child has died to cope and find meaning, as well as encouraging suggestions for those who would like to comfort someone whose child has died. I hope you will take time to read it.

When Mother’s Day Hurts

© 2016 Rebecca R. Carney

Happy Birthday to Me

My birthday is coming up soon, and my boss reminded me of that fact a few days ago. Birthday reminders of clients and employees pop up on his calendar, and he had noticed mine coming up. I just kind of crinkled my nose and went back to working. I’m sure he thought my response to that reminder was very underwhelming.

I like my boss. He’s a good guy. He’s generous and nice to me. That’s important to me as a general rule, but especially important in the workplace since I spend nearly as much waking time at work with him during the week as I do at home with my family. He’s really busy, always has a million things on his mind, and so we don’t chitchat a whole lot about personal things. That’s okay. I would really rather not talk about myself or my life, anyway. The point here is that I’ve never said anything to him about Jason or the death of a child. As a result, I’m sure he thought my reaction to his birthday reminder was a typical female-not-wanting-to-get-older thing.

It got me thinking about what I would say if he commented about my reaction to my birthday. Do I just minimize my reaction and let him think that I just don’t want to get any older? Or do I tell him the truth – that I would really rather skip over my birthday and most “holidays” entirely because of Jason’s death? What exactly would I say? Mentioning the death of a child can really make things awkward. Do I say something or let him be comfortable in his lack of knowledge about Jason? What if the topic of how many children I have or something of the like comes up some other time or way? I guess I just need to process this in case the topic of my birthday and lack of enthusiasm about it comes up again before the actual day.

I’ve always loved holidays and everything that goes along with them – birthdays, Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, 4th of July. Making Halloween costumes, planning birthday parties, getting ready to host the 4th of July at our house, baking cinnamon rolls for Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas morning. You name it. I loved it all with a passion.

I loved shopping for stuff for Easter baskets for the kids. I’d keep my eyes open for weeks before Easter for cute stuffed animals and unique things I could buy. One year I got each of them a bottle of sparking cider for their baskets. My husband kind of scratched his head on that one, but I knew that all of them loved sparkling cider and that they would probably get a kick out of having their own bottles to drink. I’d get up early on Easter morning, sit on the floor of our bedroom in front of the closet where I had been hiding everything, put the baskets together, and then set them in front of their bedroom doors so they could find them first thing when they got up. It made me so very happy to surprise them like that.

As I wrote that last paragraph, I physically felt the excitement I used to feel as I got ready for holidays and events, and it made me smile the biggest smile. But then it was followed by tears welling up in my eyes, because…well…holidays just aren’t the same for me any more. You see, holidays bring into focus the holes in my life, especially the huge hole left by Jason and the aftermath of his death. I have too many holes in my life and struggles surround those holes, and they make holidays really hard. They’re all hard, but holidays that celebrate “me” are hard for me in a different way than other holidays.

Everyone likes to feel special to family and friends and that their lives are celebrated by family and friends. I was no different. I wanted to be surprised by gifts and celebrated on my birthday, to be honored on Mother’s Day, to have love gifts or flowers from my husband on Valentine’s Day, to get well-thought-out-just-for-me presents for Christmas.

I remember one Mother’s Day it seemed as if no one had made any advance preparations to celebrate “my day.” It was one of those “Oh, by the way, Becky, where would YOU like to go for dinner?” years, and it rather peeved me a bit that not more thought had gone into celebrating “me.” Selfish. It just makes me feel so selfish now. How I wish I hadn’t been so selfish.

I guess that’s why I especially don’t like celebrating holidays where the focus is on me. I would gladly trade every single one of them just to have the ordinary days back of being together with my entire family. There were times when other things – “me” things or some activity or perceived need to be addressed – that seemed so important to me at the time. Now, I honestly can’t remember most of what they were. If I can’t remember what they are now, how could I have thought they were so important then? What really is important in this life? If I could just take back all of the times I was selfish – times when I thought I needed “me” time or when I thought I wasn’t being valued as much as I thought I was supposed to be – or when I thought I had too much to do to sit down and play a game of chess or cards with Jason, I would do it in a heartbeat.

You see, I’m just not that important in the whole scheme of things. I don’t feel the need to be celebrated any more. I’d rather the focus be on the people I love than on me. They mean the world to me.

If I could just communicate one thing to parents, it would be to cherish and value their family and those ordinary days with their kids. I see parents rushing their kids along or harping at them for one thing or another. It breaks my heart. Don’t realize how much more important those precious treasures right in front of their noses are than getting on to the next store or whatever? When those moments are gone forever – and especially if those children are gone forever – all of a sudden you see things with a new perspective. I know there are a lot of parents who are really trying really hard to do it right and who value their children beyond measure. It just seems like there are also those who forget how short those days are in the rush of adult things they feel they need to do.

Every parent has regrets, I would venture to say, and wishes they had done certain things differently. I have bucket loads of regrets and things I wish I could or had done differently. There’s nothing I can do about them now, and so I just have to deal with it as best I can.

I think I’ll just skip over my birthday this year and see if I can figure out how to reflect – or perhaps deflect – that attention to someone else so they can feel valued and important.

© 2013 Rebecca R. Carney

Always a Mother

I always wanted to be a mother. I was one of those baby boomer girls, while growing up during the “second wave” feminist movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s, who felt that being a mother was what I wanted to do with my life. To me, choosing to be a mother – and a stay-at-home mother – was equally my right and choice along with any other choice being promoted at the time. I wasn’t a mother or a stay-at-home mother by default; I knew I could do and be anything I chose to be. It was my choice and one I do not regret.

When we found out I was pregnant with Eric, we were so excited. At the time, it wasn’t considered necessary to have an ultrasound, either to monitor the development of the fetus or to find out the sex of the baby. We decided to wait until the baby was born and let it be a surprise. It was fun to speculate on whether we were having a boy or girl. Quite honestly, we thought we might be having a girl and had a girl’s name picked out: Kirsten. (After Eric was born, Joe’s great-aunt asked us what we would have name the baby if it had been a girl…and then, obviously not crazy about our choice of name for a girl, promptly told us that it was a good thing we had a boy!)

Eric was due July 5th, and in the middle of June I had been put on bed rest because of high blood pressure. At the time, we lived in Southern California in our very first cute, little home…purchased without air conditioning…and were having an unseasonable heat streak during that time! Whew!! Was I ever hot and uncomfortable!! Miserable!! We would open all the windows at night to let the cool air in and close the curtains and windows first thing in the morning to keep the hot air out. By noon, it didn’t make any difference; it was just plain hot indoors and out.

I went to my regular doctor’s appointment on June 28th and was told that it would probably be at least two weeks before the baby was born, that the baby was still high and hadn’t dropped, no signs to indicate labor was close at all, first babies usually are late, etc. I cried all the way home and pleaded for God’s mercy!

I went into labor first thing the next morning, six days before my due date. Needless to say, my doctor was very surprised to hear from me! Eric was born that evening via C-section (he was in distress because the chord was wrapped around his neck), 7 lbs, 11 1/2 oz. Beautiful, perfect baby boy. We were absolutely ecstatic!!

Jason followed three years and one month later, 9 lbs. 10 1/2 ounces, also six days before my due date. Our doctor had agreed to try a V-back (vaginal delivery following C-section), which not very common and was considered a high risk delivery at the time, as long as the baby didn’t get any larger than an estimated 8 pounds. (My doctor ended up teaching not too long after Jason was born and used my delivery as an example of a successful V-back.) Everything went really well and Jason was born early on the morning of July 29, 1982 with minimal medication during the delivery. Beautiful, perfect baby boy with auburn hair. What a wonderful, busy bundle of sunshine and love!!

Jenna was born two years minus two weeks later. Once again, we chose not to know the sex of the baby. People asked us over and over, “Aren’t you really hoping for a girl since you have two boys?” And we would answer – with total honesty – that it didn’t matter to us whether it was a boy or girl as long as the baby was healthy. The first thing Joe said, though, after Jenna was born was, “We got our girl!” When I said something later to him about it, he hadn’t even realized he had said it. I think in his heart he was hoping for a girl, but would have been equally happy with a boy. And what a daddy’s girl she was – and still is! We were so happy to be parents of our two beautiful boys and our beautiful baby girl!

Two and a half years later we lost a baby in utero at 19 weeks. We don’t know why the baby died, but it did. It was just one of those things that happen in life.

People had told me before Eric was born that I wouldn’t believe how much love a person could feel for his or her children when they are born and as he or she watches them grow. They told me it was so much larger than I could ever imagine.

They were right! Sometimes I felt like my heart couldn’t contain so much love for my children and joy at watching them grow. I rejoiced with every joy they felt. My heart also hurt with every hurt they felt. The “mama bear” rose up in me, wanting to protect them from every slight, every nightmare, every meanie or mean thing that tried to hurt my precious kiddos. I wanted – and still want – the absolute best for them!!

I will admit that Mother’s Day is not an easy day for me. On one hand, I feel so incredibly blessed to have given birth to three beautiful, healthy children. I am so thankful that I had the opportunity to stay at home with my children, homeschool them, and watch them grow and learn. I love spending time with Jenna, Eric and our grandkids. I celebrate the adults Eric and Jenna have become. I love them with my whole heart and I celebrate being their mother.

On the other hand, I would rather fly under the radar and skip Mother’s Day entirely because it hurts. It emphasizes and spotlights holes in our lives. It emphasizes what was and will never be again. I miss my boy so much – Jason should be here, alive and well, living his life to the fullest. Neither my mom and nor Joe’s mom are with us, and so Joe and I belong to the “motherless son” and “motherless daughter” crowd – we have no mothers here on earth to whom we can wish Happy Mother’s Day. As a fellow blogger, author Marcy Blesy, said in a recent post, I feel a little fractured on Mother’s Day.

I am, however, always a mother first and foremost – and I am very glad to be one. I fiercely love my children with my whole heart. I will always want, hope and pray for the best for them. I am a mother to four children. I know that I will see Jason again and meet the baby we never got a chance to know on this earth. I also know that I will see my mom again.

On this Mother’s Day, my thoughts and prayers are for those who are missing their mothers, for those whose lives don’t exactly fit into the Hallmark card moments, for those who desperately want to have a baby and are encountering struggles in fulfilling their dreams, and for those who are missing their children who are no longer with them.

© 2012 Rebecca R. Carney

Mother’s Day

From my journal dated May 13, 2002:

Yesterday was Mother’s Day…another “first” without Jason in a year full of “firsts” without our precious boy.

Joe got up early, went to the store, got turnovers and flowers, and fixed breakfast for me. I came to sit down for breakfast and just started to cry. I miss my boy so much. My poor hubby…he tried so hard, and I just fell apart.

I started thinking about the Mother’s Day when it seemed like no one had actually planned ahead to do anything to “celebrate me” and how I struggled to not let it bother me. I was so selfish! I can’t stand to think how selfish I was! I wouldn’t care if anyone did anything now if I could only have Jason back…just to be together. Just to be together, knowing our kids are safe and happy, would be enough.